Longform

PRACTICE WHAT YOU TEACH

Page 5 of 6

In the late Seventies Deborah Williams, a young black teacher, had sued the district over the mobility issue and lost. The decision was appealed, overturned and appealed again. In 1981, as the case re-entered the legal process, Delia was contacted by an investigator for the Department of Justice who wanted to know whether, in Delia's opinion as president of the association, the department should enter the fray.

Delia's answer was yes, and she gave it knowing that it would further antagonize the administration. The result of that lawsuit was a mediated agreement that opened the door for black-teacher mobility. It would also open a door for Delia, who was appointed assistant principal of Mitchell High School in 1982 over Daryl Higman, a longtime geometry teacher and department chair at Wasson High School.

In June 1985 district administrators were about to announce their selection for the new principal of Mitchell High School. In accordance with the old-boy system that simply determined whose "turn" it was to be promoted, they had decided on Higman, then the acting principal of Wasson High School.

But in a surprise move, the Colorado Springs Board of Education rejected the administration's candidate. When Delia asked to be considered, district superintendent Arvel Ricketts refused to forward her name. So she went and spoke to the board president herself.

The board decided to appoint Delia as principal over the vigorous protests of the district administrators and some Mitchell staffers who argued that she wasn't qualified, and that "the NAACP got her the job."

But Delia felt she was qualified. She had been at the school several years and knew its problems. She had some ideas about how to fix them, too.

Some of Mitchell's younger teachers were excited by the prospect of change. But others, many of whom had been there for thirty years or more, made it known that they resented her appointment. The retiring principal, Lou Mikkelson, had come up through the ranks: first as teacher and coach, then dean of boys, assistant principal and finally principal. He was one of them, and Mitchell's faculty had a reputation as one of the most pro-union in the district.

Delia launched a series of meetings to discuss what the teachers needed, hoping it would bring the two sides together. But she was unable to win over many of her detractors.

Still, she had more to worry about than a disgruntled staff. Mitchell had a double-digit dropout rate, especially among its growing population of minority and low-income students. Thirty percent of the kids were minority; 40 percent of the students were from families that lived below the poverty level.

And there were more immediate concerns. The school was located in a business area and hemmed in on two sides by large apartment complexes that had a reputation for drug-dealing, shootings and other crimes.

A police officer warned Delia to stay out of the school parking lots when she was alone because of the danger. "My God, if I can't even go to the parking lot, how safe are these children?" she thought. The kids had to walk past those apartments to even get to school.

Although compared to the degeneration of inner-city schools in Los Angeles, where Delia's sister still lived in the old family home and complained about the increasing violence, Mitchell's problems were small, it was already developing a reputation in Colorado Springs as a "gang school."

Delia was worried about the effect the gang threat might have on the kids. She was even more worried about some teachers who seemed to think these kids weren't worth saving.

In Los Angeles, Delia had seen what happened when the people with the power gave up on kids: The kids gave up on themselves. Why not join a gang? At least in a gang there were people to support you.

But at Mitchell, there was Delia. One afternoon a counselor took the new principal aside and told her one of the school's worst-kept secrets. It seemed that a handsome counselor and girls' track coach had been having sexual relations with female students--and one of the girls had gotten pregnant and had an abortion.

Delia checked with other members of the faculty and was shocked to learn that this had been going on for at least a decade. She brought in a social worker, Doug Douglas, who launched an investigation. He combed through school yearbooks to identify girls the coach was alleged to have seduced and then talked to them. Most of the girls corroborated the allegations.

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Steve Jackson